by Emma Baccelieri
American Horizons has spent the past month advertising a contest for two individuals to win a dinner with Trump, including a flight and hotel stay. But while the organization, which is a hybrid of a conventional PAC and a super PAC, wasn't established until mid-June, the contest has roots going back to November. It was originally the brainchild of a separate group, Recover America, that was publicly called out by the Trump campaign for promoting the prize without the knowledge or consent of the candidate. The group's website, DinnerWithTrump.org, soon went dark as Recover America's treasurer, Michael Williams, dealt with the fallout.
In May, Ian Hawes -- a friend of Williams and a Maryland-based executive of an e-commerce company -- began looking into relaunching the contest in a new form, and in June, he set up American Horizons.
"The contest was sort of put in shambles, that was something [Williams] was really disappointed with," Hawes said in an interview with OpenSecrets Blog. "I saw an opportunity to step in and revitalize it."
The contest serves as a fundraising pitch for what Hawes described as the PAC's primary goal, pro-Trump digital advertising. Hawes noted that, as a Trump supporter, he had been concerned by what he deemed a lack of focus on advertising from the campaign itself and saw launching American Horizons as a way to counter that, focusing on social media and on Facebook in particular.
Trump eschewed super PACs early on in his campaign, mocking opponents for depending on their funds and sending cease-and-desist letters to several that claimed to support him. In recent months, however, he seems to have changed his tune, and American Horizons joins a handful of other pro-Trump PACs.
On DinnerWithTrump.org and in social media postings, the contest's prize is simply referred to as "dinner with Donald Trump." Fine print on the bottom of the website offers slightly more detail -- "a Sponsor-selected fundraising evening event held with Donald Trump and other attendees."
According to Hawes, American Horizons plans to make the prize possible by purchasing seats at a fundraising dinner that is organized and sponsored by "a state committee or state Republican Party" and promises that Trump will be in attendance.
But it would be legal even if the group itself sponsored the dinner (assuming it could get Trump to attend). Under a Federal Election Commission decision that allows candidates to appear at super PAC fundraisers, this type of activity is legal, said Kenneth Gross, an attorney at Skadden Arps who specializes in campaign law compliance.
"The dinner being a scam, I'm completely against that assertion," Hawes said. "This isn't some sort of scam, this isn't some sort of swindle, we make it very clear to all the folks who donate that we're not affiliated with the Trump campaign."
Entering the contest does not require a donation to American Horizons. But with the contest as its keystone, the PAC has raised $500,000 dollars and built an email list of 200,000 names, Hawes said. The group has focused on cultivating small donors, and apart from a $75,000 donation from Hawes himself, there are no contributions of more than $1,000.
Until the organization's first FEC filings are released this Friday, there is no way to verify the claims.
"We're not a super PAC that takes millions of dollars, and we really have no intention of doing that," Hawes said. "We take the Bernie Sanders approach, we have a whole bunch of donations of $5 and $10."
"All of that" is being devoted to pro-Trump advertising, Hawes said, and "almost exclusively" to digital advertising.
This week's FEC filings will show the PAC's expenditures.
Regardless of how much money American Horizons has raised and where that money is going, it has at least been successful enough to catch the attention of a copycat. On July 9, a Facebook page called "United for Hillary" was created with a link to a website displaying the exact same layout and content as DinnerWithTrump.org, save the name changes.
"Dinner with Hillary -- Enter for a chance for you and a guest to have dinner with Hillary Clinton.The flight, food & stay are on us," it reads before encouraging readers to donate, in the same message found on DinnerWithTrump.org.
When told about the pro-Clinton site by OpenSecrets Blog, Hawes insisted that he didn't know it existed and that American Horizons is not affiliated with any other PACs, pro-Clinton or otherwise. American Horizons plans to send a cease-and-desist letter to the group, he said, offering to send a copy to OpenSecrets Blog.
The site's fine print says it is sponsored by United for Hillary PAC, which it claims is registered with the FEC. But FEC filings show no record of any such group, and we could find no contact info for it.
The fine print on the pro-Clinton site also says "Prize is for winner & guest to attend a Donald Trump fundraising event with other attendees" -- the same language used on DinnerWithTrump.org, and an apparent oversight by whoever subbed in Clinton's name for Trump elsewhere on the site. Another hint that something is amiss? The Facebook and Twitter links on UnitedForHillary.org lead to the same Trump pages as do those on DinnerWithTrump.org.